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The doomslayer falls
on April 4, 1998
On Sunday, February 8th, psychologist and economist Julian L. Simon succumbed to a heart attack in Maryland. It is difficult to overstate the damage his death will cause the world debate on overpopulation, natural resources, and the environment. Dr. Simon's prolific and energetic mind gave rise to fourteen books and countless papers and lectures, dedicated to overthrowing the dogma that underlies so much of today's environmental discourse.
Simon, still considered a maverick after thirty years of relentless data-gathering, impeccable empirical work, and well-thought out conclusions, questioned the unquestionable. He maintained that the earth is in good shape by every conceivable measure, and that the environmental situation continues to improve each year. Every index of human happiness - food prices, net income, infant mortality, life expectancy, disease rates - has steadily improved. He documented those claims with reams of data, culminating in his 1996 tour de force The State of Humanity. It is absolutely comprehensive, and contains enough obscure data to make the most jaded Trivial Pursuit fan squirm (if you ever want to read about the average lower-class Brazilian's annual starch intake, look no further).
Constantly vilified by his critics, Simon always had a small and devoted following. He was dubbed 'the Doomslayer' by Wired magazine for his repeated skewering of environmental fanatics and 'Birkenstock Puritans.' Perhaps the most memorable episode happened in 1980. Simon wrote exasperatedly in an article that he was sick and tired of environmentalists' insistence that large-scale natural starvation was right around the corner. He invited them to put their money where their mouths were. Paul Ehrlich, the influential author of The Population Bomb and predictor of worldwide famine and resource scarcity for the 1980s, stepped up to the plate. Simon invited Ehrlich and any of his colleagues to choose any five non-government-controlled resources, purchase $1000 worth in any combination, and specify a later date. If the resource bundle went up in price (implicating that they had become more scarce), then Simon would have to pay the difference. If they went down in price, signifying greater abundance, then Simon would receive the difference. Ehrlich and company jumped at this proposition, writing that they were looking forward to cashing in 'before other greedy people see this opportunity.' They chose five heavy metals used as inputs for industry, and specified ten years as the time to wait. And thus it occurred that Ehrlich and his colleagues wrote a check to Julian Simon for $576.80 in 1990. When Ehrlich claimed that it was a fluke, Simon offered to repeat the bet on the same terms, with a new bundle and a new time period. Ehrlich refused, and no one ever stepped up to take his place.
In 1996 Simon updated his classic The Ultimate Resource, in which he claimed that the human mind and human creativity are our best bet to overcome the world's problems. Thus, it's not possible to have too many people. Doomsayers, Simon argues, think of people as merely mouths to feed, rather than individuals with lives, dreams, and ideas. They lament population growth, never once thinking that one of those children might grow up to invent a more advanced farming technique, a cure for AIDS, or a way to construct cheap, safe housing. For the same reasons, Simon argues passionately against immigration restrictions. The only way immigrants can harm their new home countries is by imposing a new drain on the welfare state, and the data show that natives almost always take greater advantage of social programs than immigrants do.
Today, the Unabomber's atrocities find an excuse in his radical environmentalism. Children learn in school that the world would have been better off without them, and that ecological Armageddon is right around the corner. Al Gore writes of a grim future and the need for a 'wrenching' social re-organization to cope with the coming age of scarcity. Julian Simon, conversely, spent his life providing an accessible and empirically sound body of work that challenges the environmentalist agenda. Environmentalists should read his work, to see numerous examples of good science as well as to think long and hard about some of their most cherished and reliable beliefs. Teachers should read it, since they handle and assist the ultimate resource in its earliest stages. But all of us should, at the very least, recognize that the environmental debate has two sides, and that Julian Simon spent his life fighting long, hard, and nobly for his.